— and that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing


Never Home Alone:

From Mi­crobes to Mil­li­pedes, Camel Crick­ets, and Honey Bees, The Nat­u­ral His­tory of Where We Live

By Rob Dunn

Ba­sic Books, 325 pages, $37

ISN’T it use­ful to know some house guests have lit­tle re­spect for home pri­vacy and aren’t im­pressed by sparkling-clean floors and smudge-free win­dows?

Since ig­no­rance is bliss only in a fool’s par­adise, read­ers will ap­pre­ci­ate some eye­brow-rais­ing discoveries bi­ol­o­gist Rob Dunn, a North Carolina State Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and au­thor of a num­ber of books — in­clud­ing 2008’s Ev­ery Liv­ing Thing and 2011’s The Wild Life of our Bodies — is will­ing

to share.

“This book is the story of both the life that is likely liv­ing be­side us in our homes and the way in which that life is chang­ing,” Dunn writes, re­fer­ring to a wide range of mi­cro­bial bac­te­ria, fungi, viruses and yeasts — part of some 200,000 life forms shar­ing our homes with us.

Out­num­ber­ing our planet’s wide range of bird and mam­mal species, these guests in­habit our bodies or at­tach to our skin, wag­ing un­seen wars fea­tur­ing hordes of harm­ful mi­crobes (pathogens) ar­rayed against mi­cro­bial ad­ver­saries which guard our well­be­ing.

For­tu­nately, as Dunn points out, our un­seen friends usu­ally far out­num­ber the fewer than 50 bac­te­rial species which “reg­u­larly cause disease.”

Also shar­ing space in our homes are a host of creepy crawlies in kitchens, bed­rooms or base­ment TV rooms — crea­tures usu­ally squished or swat­ted — such as spi­ders, flies, midges, sow bugs, bee­tles, ants, wasps, bees and aphids.

Our aver­sion to this eclec­tic mix of un­in­vited, freeload­ing guests is well­founded. Some, like cock­roaches, mosquitoes and house flies, are known to carry pathogens which cause dis­eases such as malaria and cholera. But Dunn also presents com­pelling ev­i­dence show­ing “most of the life in our homes is ei­ther be­nign or good.”

In fact, Never Home Alone is re­ally a ro­bust, sci­en­tific de­fence for both mi­cro­bial life and for larger crea­tures too of­ten ex­ter­mi­nated sim­ply be­cause they’ve in­vaded our space.

While data from co­pi­ous end notes sup­port staid sci­en­tific facts from strictly con­trolled lab tests, an en­gag­ing writ­ing style en­livens nar­ra­tives such as those about mi­crobes in shower heads and bee­tles on win­dowsills, trans­form­ing Dunn’s lat­est work into a pro­found un­der­stand­ing of how all liv­ing things help in con­struct­ing and main­tain­ing our planet’s com­plex web of life.

Even more im­por­tant for our well­be­ing, re­sults from con­trolled ex­per­i­ments prove that some of those cringe­wor­thy pests have the po­ten­tial to play cru­cial roles in long-sought sci­en­tific break­throughs.

For ex­am­ple: who knew camel crick­ets carry bac­te­ria known to be able to de­grade in­dus­trial waste? What con­nec­tion can be made be­tween hu­man per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders and the proven fact cock­roaches’ be­hav­iour is al­tered by mi­cro­bial par­a­sites?

Dunn’s in­ten­tional pro­fun­dity is scat­tered through­out his dis­clo­sures, adding to the book’s quirky ap­peal, es­pe­cially when paired with one sober­ing thought: “Ev­ery species even­tu­ally goes ex­tinct. We will, too.”

Ad­di­tional grist for the mill comes from chal­leng­ing the no­tion that clean­li­ness is next to god­li­ness. He ar­gues that our ob­ses­sion with elim­i­nat­ing pathogens and un­sightly crea­tures makes it dif­fi­cult for friendly mi­crobes to thrive.

Ex­per­i­ments show bio­di­ver­sity, namely plants, dust, dirt, grime and multi-legged crea­tures — all car­ry­ing mi­crobes — are ac­tu­ally good for us, ex­pos­ing our bodies to a wide range of mi­cro­bial life that can evolve into more ef­fec­tive disease-fight­ing al­lies.

We des­per­ately need more mi­cro­bial help, Dunn con­tends, since sur­veys from hospi­tals sug­gest that in­dis­crim­i­nate use of cleansers and an­tibi­otics not only kills pathogens but also their nat­u­ral mi­cro­bial en­e­mies, al­low­ing pathogens free reign to evolve into ever more dan­ger­ous strains.

“Bac­te­ria are evolv­ing re­sis­tance to our an­tibi­otics faster than we can re­place the an­tibi­otics,” he warns, sid­ing with sci­en­tists who be­lieve in­creas­ing rates of asthma at­tacks and al­ler­gies in hu­mans are the re­sult of liv­ing in in­creas­ingly ster­ile en­vi­ron­ments.

Which guests we should wel­come into our homes has sud­denly taken on new mean­ing.

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